Good Friday and the Cross

Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate by being crucified on a cross. 

Think of how amazing a symbol is the cross.  It is an instrument of execution and death, a visual proclamation that here—here!—death is dealt with, not denied or avoided.  It is a “bridge” with a crossbar by which the Son of God can stretch out his arms and embrace the humanity that scorns him with hatred, and raise his head to the heavens to his Father to say, “Forgive them!”  It is a crossroad, an intersection.  Here intersects heaven and earth, God and man.  It signals that a choice must be made, one way or another.  This is why the word is still used to describe the point of decision, the “crux” of the matter.  The cross is heavy with meaning.  It is no wonder that the scene of the crucifixion and its concept of self-sacrifice is the most fertile soil from which the greatest art proceeds.  But the cross is also a judicial instrument, a punishment reserved for the most wretched of criminals, traitors to the supreme Emperor, Caesar.  So Jesus goes to a cross on behalf of wretched criminals, traitors to the true supreme Emperor, God.  As a judicial instrument, the cross tells us that rather than just being an unfortunate and lamentable event, an instance of “bad things happen to good people, Jesus is paying a penalty.  He is not a victim of a bad sequence of events.  He is there on purpose.  He is paying a penalty for us.

The later Nicene Creed adds a few words to the pattern of the Apostles’ Creed that I think are very important.  It says that Jesus “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven.”  This is absolutely crucial. The “crux” of the matter for us is the answer to the question: What is Jesus doing hanging there on that cross?  The universal answer of orthodox Christianity is this: Jesus is hanging there for me.  We should acknowledge that there is a great diversity in how Scripture describes the death of Christ—ransom, sacrifice, expiation, victory, and so forth—but we also need to see that in that diversity there is an underlying unity.  The basic conviction we find in 1 Corinthians 15 forms the earliest recorded Christian confession: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…”  All the Apostles and New Testament writers link the death of Christ to our sins.  Herman Bavinck summarizes this way:

For when it says that Christ, though personally without sin, has been put forward as an expiation to show God’s righteousness (Rom. 3:25), has been made to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13), bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24); that God condemned sin in his flesh (Rom. 8:3) and punished him with the accursed death on the cross and that through him we now received reconciliation and forgiveness, righteousness and life, indeed total and complete salvation—then we can construe the interconnection between all these scriptural pronouncements in no other way than that Christ put himself in our place, has borne the punishment of our sin, satisfied God’s justice, and so secured salvation for us.

This is the heart of Christianity, and it has been assaulted throughout the centuries, and is under assault again today.  I speak of what we call the “substitutionary” or “vicarious” character of the cross.  Either Jesus hangs there in my place, or he hangs there in his own place.  Liberal theologies always deny the substitutionary death of Christ because it makes necessary all kinds of so-called unpalatable doctrines like God’s wrath and justice—rather than goodness and love!—or the idea that God needs to be satisfied or placated in any way.  Liberal theology will have none of it.  For liberalism, the power of the cross is not that Jesus hangs there, literally, for me, but just that he hangs there. Isn’t his example amazing?  How he just meekly loves those people who kill him?  Doesn’t that inspire you?  We should be nice and meek like Jesus!  On these terms, the cross is a coincidence.  Something bad happened to a good person, and that good person’s response to it should inspire us to do likewise.  If Jesus is not actually a substitute on the cross, if he did not hang there in our place, then all that is left is an empty example. The cross actually accomplishes nothing.  Without the substitutionary death of Christ, the he-died-for-me death of Christ, there is no Christianity.

As I said, resistance to this doctrine has always been intense.  In the 20th century it was liberalism, but more recently in our day, the Emergent Church movement denies the substitutionary death of Christ because, as one of their celebrated authors puts it, it amounts to “cosmic child abuse.”  God the Father beating his Son is just not worthy of God the Father.  I heard a young postgraduate in a lecture call Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ a “snuff film.”  Something disgusting.  Unworthy of God.  Make no mistake: Anyone holding that view understands neither the holiness of God nor the sinfulness of man.  We sing in one of our songs this great line:

“You who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great / here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate / Mark the sacrifice appointed , see who bears the awful load / ‘Tis the Word, the LORD’s anointed, Son of Man and Son of God!”  

I love how this song answers the ultimate question, the “crux” of the matter, by looking at the cross.  This is what our sin deserves.  This is what had to be done.  Jesus always said, “It is necessary that the Christ suffer and die.”  Without substitution the cross is just another meaningless waste, another random act of violence.  On the contrary, Jesus’ death was not an accident.  Acts 2:27-28 says, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.  They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” 

We should note that the concept of that song, “Stricken, Smitten, & Afflicted,” comes from Isaiah 53, which shows us unambiguously the purpose of God’s will in the substitutionary character of Christ’s death.  Listen to what one of the greatest Old Testament theologians of the 19th century, Franz Delitzsch, writes about that chapter:

The Servant of the Lord has borne our diseases and carried our sorrows.  He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.  Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.  The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  He was stricken for the transgression of the people.  He made himself an offering for sin.  Himself righteous, without wrongdoing or deceit, he bears the iniquities of his people, making them righteous.  The suffering of the Servant of the Lord is not ‘merely a confessor’s or martyr’s suffering, like that of the persecuted church, but a representative and atoning suffering, a sacrifice for sin … Chapter 53 returns perpetually to this mediatorial suffering; it is never weary of repeating it.’

"Never weary of repeating it."  We too, should never be weary of repeating it. Those who want Christianity without a substitutionary death of Christ want Christianity without Christ.  Those who want a nicer, gentler Christianity without all the blood want Christianity without Christ.  They want Christianity without the great exchange of our sins for his righteousness. 

St. Augustine memorably expressed it this way: “He made our faults his faults, so that he might make his righteousness our righteousness” (Against Faustus, XIV, 4).  And, in another work, more beautifully, he wrote: “Christ was taking to himself flesh from you, and from himself gave salvation to you; was taking death to himself from you, and from himself gave life to you; was taking to himself insults from you and from himself conferred honors on you” (Enarrations on the Psalms, 61.3).

Good Friday is good.

Brian Mattson